Just Deserts and Life without Parole for Juveniles: An Iniquitous Law and Policy

Article excerpt


For time immemorial, the criminal justice system treated adult and juvenile offenders the same when punishments had been imposed (Fuller, 2009; Strieb, 1995). For example, in 1792, a Philadelphia official put a 12-year-old boy in jail for arson, forcing the boy to confess by denying him food and his clothing (The Commonwealth v. Dillon, 1792). About 1828, New Jersey claimed that a 12-year-old African American servant [sic] asked a woman to borrow a gun, and when he was refused, he bludgeoned the woman to death. Reportedly, officials told him that if he confessed, he would escape punishment. Subsequently, he was found guilty and executed (The State v. James Guild, 1828). In 1911, Addams (1930) recounted a brutal murder that occurred in Chicago involving six young men and boys. The four oldest males were hanged and the two youngest, who were under 17 years of age, were sentenced to the state penitentiary (Addams, 1930). In a manner, society embraced a just deserts punishment philosophy. The principle of just deserts means that juveniles who committed certain offenses are subject to the same punishment as adult offenders (Marinos, 2005).

During the Progressive Era in the 19th century, policies regarding juvenile offenders began to change, such as the creation of houses of refugee and the creation of juvenile protective associations in many major cities (Addams, 1910; Alexander, 1997; Siegel & Welsh, 2009). Spearheading this reformation in juvenile policies were women and particularly women affiliated with settlement houses or early social workers (Addams, 1930). Prior to the creation of the juvenile court, Chicago police officials who had arrested neighborhood adolescents for minor offenses took those adolescents to House Hull. Settlement house workers were instrumental in the creation of the first juvenile court in Chicago in 1899, and the first juvenile court was located across the street from the Hull House Settlement (Addams, 1910). A settlement house worker was the first juvenile probation officer. In addition, settlement house workers in California convinced California officials to create a separate juvenile court just for girls, staffing it completely with woman professionals (Odem & Schossman, 1991). For the most part, these early juvenile courts handled juveniles who had committed minor offenses (Addams, 1910).

Despite the creation of juvenile courts in Illinois and other states, states still tried juveniles in courts as adults for serious crimes. Juveniles who were convicted of capital felonies were subject to capital punishment or life imprisonment in adult prisons (Application of Johnson, 1957; Cobb v. the State, 1962). A federal court in New Jersey decided whether a prisoner should be released, noting that in the 1940s a prisoner had been given life imprisonment at hard labor in an adult prison at the age of 14, and another 13 year old had been given life imprisonment (Application of Johnson, 1957). Often, life imprisonment carried with it the possibility of parole after a number of years (The People of the State of New York, v. Joseph Lake, 1948). Discussing the criminal history of an appellant, an Iowa Court observed that the appellant had been given a life sentence in 1922 for bank robbery but paroled in 1931 (State of Iowa, v. Bruntlett, 1949). In 1961, Georgia sentenced Preston Cobb, then a 15-year-old African American male who was charged with killing a White man, to die in the electric chair (Cobb v. The State, 1962). Upon a retrial, Cobb was convicted of murder but was given a sentence of life imprisonment (Cobb v. the State, 1966). Cobb's case was successfully appealed a second time, resulting in a manslaughter plea and a sentence of 18 years. Through these legal appeals, Georgia maintained Cobb at the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville, Georgia, the State's maximum security prison (Alexander 2003).

Presently, a number of states provide life without parole for juveniles (Chen, 2009; Children's Law Center of Massachusetts, 2009; Meadoux v. …


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